This article is the fourth in a series called, “The U.S. Military and the Catholic Faith: A Comparison”, which examines the comparisons between the U.S. Army and Catholicism. Throughout my articles, I use the word ‘military’ loosely. I focus on the Army because I am a soldier and grew up through the ranks of the enlisted side. In fact, when I get to Heaven Saint Peter’s going to say, “How’d you earn your living boy?” and I’m going to say… “Army Cadence” and reference Matt 16:19:
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
There are many symbols used in the military. First and foremost is the American flag. We do not have to go very far to understand what the flag represents. The American Flag reminds Americans of all who have died helping us keep our freedom. Back in the Revolutionary War, the drummer boy was marching on flag detail; if they were shot and the flag fell someone else would pick it up. It was important to those on the battlefield to actually see the flag as they fought. The flag served as a rallying point, a symbol which instilled courage and spurred the men to continue their fight for freedom.
Sadly, some people may look at the flag negatively because of the actions of a few. Others blame the government for certain actions (not understanding the intentions behind the government) and have even mistreated American symbols like the American flag. This was especially evident during the Vietnam War protests.
However, the American Anthem which is sung before sporting events always seems to stir a feeling of pride and patriotism in Americans, especially during world competition like the Olympics. When people sing this symbolic national anthem, people forget any criticism they have about the government. The symbolic words stir feelings of pride by touching deep patriotic roots.
The Star Spangled Banner
Oh, say! can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming;
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
Symbols have the power to evoke patriotic feelings and a sense of pride, especially for the men who serve in the military. The flag helps remind those in uniform, who salute the flag, why they are serving in the military. In a very similar way, Catholics get questioned about the Churches symbols such as the crucifix. Christ is our Lord and Savior. He told us all to pick up our crosses daily, right? (Luke 9:23). But by the use of the crucifix is a reminder as well as what He did for us.
In a very similar way, Catholics get questioned about the Churches symbols, especially the crucifix. Christ is our Lord and Savior. He told us all to pick up our crosses daily, right? (Luke 9:23). The crucifix is a reminder as well as what He did for us.
Both the military and Church make use of symbols like statues but it doesn’t mean they are idolized; they provide a means of showing respect and serve to remind people about those held up as role models. Think of when you see the Statue of Liberty, the Thomas Jefferson or the Lincoln Memorial as well as the Washington Monument. These were historical people, Presidents of the United States. We don’t worship them but remember their story. Even before people could read and write, paintings helped tell the stories of the saints. In a similar way, stained glass in medieval Churches related the Gospel stories to the mostly illiterate parishioners. Statues and carvings also conveyed the core of Catholic teachings without words. Even today, in our daily lives, many people have pictures of their family, friends, loved ones on their phone, computer or in a photograph in their wallet. It doesn’t mean they love and worship the paper it is printed on or the electronic device in which it is being shown. These portraits are symbols which are pictorial references of what and who are important to us.
Within the Church, there are several sacramentals we use which are even more than mere symbols. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.” (1667).
Some people who are not part of the Church ridicule them. For me, this is a form of ignorance. Just like certain badges and awards which a service member wears on his uniform. To the average person, they more than likely won’t know what it means. The badges and awards which are worn on uniforms are based on the rank of the individual who is allowed to wear it (e.g. Recruiter, Drill Sergeant, Airborne or Air Assault badges, Expert Infantry Badge and so on), but they are usually worn because as symbols of accomplishment. Individuals are proud to show others and remind themselves of what they have done.
This is the same way Catholics wear a crucifix. This can be compared to why a Catholics wear a crucifix or carry a rosary. Sacramentals remind them of who they are and what they are striving towards, what they are living for. The sacramentals don’t have magical powers but they give a sense of security and a connection to people in Church history. In the Acts of the Apostles:
“God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. (Acts 19: 11-12).
The handkerchiefs and aprons were blessed, like holy water and were sacramentals. The Catechism explains sacramentals:
“For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”176
When a devout Catholic wears the brown scapular, the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, they feel honoured to wear the sign of the servants of the Blessed Virgin; it reminds them of the words she spoke to St. Simon Stock: “ This shall be the privilege for you and for all the Carmelites, that anyone wearing this habit shall be saved.” This is similar to the Army’s Audie Murphy club. Once you are a member, you receive a medallion and wear it with pride. This symbolizes a heroic figure but also gives you a sense of motivation and values to live by.
Symbols, statutes, and sacramentals existed in the beginning of our nation, at the beginning of the Bible, and the early Church.
God gave Moses direction on how to make the Ark of the Covenant “He made two cherubim of hammered gold; at the two ends of the mercy-seat he made them, one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the mercy-seat he made the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy-seat with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were turned towards the mercy-seat.” (Exodus 37:7-9).
These types of Cherubim’s appear again when King Solomon is building the temple in 1 Kings 6:23-37.
Throughout the years, the military and the Church both have used symbols to make visible values and truths which are invisible thus reminding and inspiring people to live them out in their daily lives.